Read Do You Believe in Santa? Online

Authors: Sierra Donovan

Do You Believe in Santa? (9 page)

Chapter 9
Today was the day.
Or, more precisely, tonight.
Mandy put on her makeup with a shaky hand. The town hall meeting was at seven, and Jake would be speaking his piece. Her stomach had been doing flip-flops all day.
She'd still known Jake less than a month, but it had been the most unforgettable time of her life since that long-ago night when she was eight years old. A dizzying blend of the magic and the mundane, where simple things like having a cup of coffee or watching a movie at home turned into something special. A terrifying blend of pride and nerves as the people she'd known all her life saw her with Jake. And somehow, seemingly of one accord, kept their mouths shut. She wondered if her conversation with Sherry had played any part in that.
Tonight's meeting might determine if Jake would stay or if he would go.
Mandy closed her lipstick tube, shut her eyes and tried to form her thoughts into some kind of prayer. It would help if she knew what she was praying for.
For Jake to be happy.
For Jake to stay.
For Jake never to find out about Mandy's . . . nonconformity.
She couldn't keep it a secret if he stayed. It was amazing her luck had held out this long. It had never been a secret before.
She looked at the small wooden plaque above the bathroom mirror. It was one of her creations, and the only trace of Christmas in this little room. In alternating red and green letters, with a painted pattern that suggested a patchwork quilt, it simply read, BELIEVE.
She'd been denying a huge part of herself for too long.
Tomorrow, she told herself, she would buy those replacement frames for the clippings. Regardless of the outcome tonight.
Mandy closed her eyes and took a deep breath, the unformed prayer still in her head as she slowly exhaled.
She'd planned to meet Jake at the town council chambers, but she was so keyed up she left the house ridiculously early. She looked at her watch and made the turn for Jake's hotel instead. The odds were he hadn't left yet, and he might appreciate the show of moral support.
Mandy white-knuckled the steering wheel, willing any mixed feelings out of her head.
When Jake opened the door of his room, he looked ready to go. More than ready. Breath whooshed out of Mandy's lungs.
He wore a navy pinstripe suit with a deep navy necktie. It made his brown eyes appear darker, determined.
In a word, he looked gorgeous.
To add another word—intimidating.
“Too much?” He glanced down. “It was this or the brown tweedy one.”
“I'm not sure,” Mandy stammered. “I've never been to a town council meeting.”
“No reason you should. They're kind of like root canals.” Jake straightened a tie that didn't need straightening. “You don't go in for one unless you really need to.”
He stepped back from the door and eyed his reflection in the mirrored dresser at the foot of the bed. “I was thinking dress to impress,” he said. “Now I'm thinking, maybe it's overkill.”
He fiddled with the tie again. He couldn't seem to leave it alone, and that was so unlike Jake. It reminded her of the day he'd kept fidgeting with the cracker packets. Mandy walked up behind him and hugged his waist.
“Well,
you
seem to like it.” Jake turned to clasp his arms around her. “What do you think? Wall Street power suit? Or the more laid-back one?”
She looked up at him. Snappy. Impressive. She didn't think anyone who didn't know Jake would guess how nervous he was.
“You look great,” she said, and meant it.
Or was it too much for Tall Pine?
“Well, it's the one I started with. Guess I'd better not overthink it.” Jake gave her a quick kiss. “Thanks for coming. It was a nice surprise.” He picked up a leather portfolio from the top of the dresser. “Ready to go?”
Too late to change her mind now.
She nodded, her lungs empty of air for the second time.
When they reached the town hall, the meeting still wasn't due to start for fifteen minutes. Mandy's heels clacked on the hard, glossy floor of the lobby. Seeing a sign for the ladies' room, she gave Jake's arm a quick squeeze.
“Be right back,” she said.
She ducked into the ladies' room, rushed to the stall farthest from the door, and threw up.
 
 
These places always reminded Jake of a courtroom. Maybe because the courthouse was always next door to city hall, probably built at the same time by the same contractor.
He and Mandy walked through the double glass doors of the town council chambers. Rows of chairs faced a raised stage with a long, desk-like panel, half a dozen seats behind it for the council members. None of the council chairs were occupied yet.
Usually, Jake didn't have to go through this step. In most of the cities he'd been to, the permit would have been issued at the counter where he'd started. He wondered if that would have been the case in Tall Pine if the project had been just another small independent business.
So far, only about a dozen of the public chairs were filled, and there wasn't another business suit in sight.
Jake led Mandy to a row of seats by the podium that also faced the seats of the council members. It stood roughly in the middle of the room. Most residents at the meeting would either have to turn around to see him, or if they were sitting behind him, look at the back of his head. The row they sat in would, at least, have a side view.
Taking her seat next to him, Mandy looked as queasy as he felt. Jake tried to keep his thoughts focused on the moment. One thing at a time. Right now the “one thing” was this meeting, and scoring as many points as possible. Get the project approved, and he could look forward to spending more time in Tall Pine.
Now wasn't the time to worry about why this project, and Tall Pine, mattered so much. He wouldn't want to be shot down on a project even if Tall Pine's sole population was a field full of gophers.
But it wasn't a field of gophers. Tall Pine had Mandy in it.
Just before seven, the council members filed in, four men and two women. He'd met them all at one time or another by now. Only one of the men wore a suit; the others wore lightweight dress shirts. The average age was mid-forties, roughly fifteen years older than Jake. The lone suit-wearer—Winston Frazier, he remembered—looked another twenty years older than that.
Jake shifted in his chair and, involuntarily, tugged at the knot in his tie. It was going to be a long meeting.
 
 
As it turned out, Jake's turn came up forty-five minutes later, after a discussion of rising water bills, quick approval for a new traffic light near the school, and the formation of a committee to explore the possibility of installing dispensers to sell duck feed at the lake.
“Next order of business.” Rick Brewster, in one of the white button-down shirts, looked enviably crisp and cool. “Proposed application for permit to construct a Regal Hotel in Tall Pine.”
And suddenly, it was high noon. Jake stood and crossed the few steps to the podium, convinced he'd left part of his stomach in the seat behind him. Heads in the audience turned his way, and Jake couldn't imagine why he'd been so concerned about being seen.
He tried to leave his doubts behind him in his chair, along with that missing part of his stomach. He also wished he'd thought to shrug out of his suit jacket while he had the chance, but it was too late now. He introduced himself and started speaking, feeling like a toboggan launching off the top of a snowy hill. No turning back.
“I'm aware that this project would be something of a precedent,” he said, “and I'm aware of some of the possible objections to it. A lot of you may be concerned that a national chain like Regal Hotels would change the character of Tall Pine. This is a small mountain community, and that's the very nature of its charm. To date, all the businesses in Tall Pine are independent operations, and I applaud you for that. You've succeeded in maintaining a steady flow of tourist traffic.”
Jake's eyes skimmed over the six council members. No visible reaction. It felt like talking to Mount Rushmore, with two extra faces.
He turned about forty-five degrees, spreading his gaze to include some of the public audience at his right. No visible reaction there either, but the room sure was quiet. And he was just now getting to the tough part.
“But sometimes
maintaining
business isn't enough. If Tall Pine doesn't make an effort to grow, you run the risk that more of those tourists will keep driving. Toward the next big thing. For a lot of them, that next thing is Mount Douglas. They have plenty of national chains. A ski resort. But a lot less of your charm.
“I'd like to suggest that a Regal Hotel would keep more visitors in Tall Pine. Our hotels are affordable, and one of the benefits of a national chain is consistency. People know what they're getting. It won't have the individual charm of your current independent hotels, but that's why I don't see Regal Hotels as a direct competitor to the two hotels already up here. Furthermore, if we located the Regal Hotel at one of the proposed sites—the old drive-in lot—we could offer people one more place to stop on their way farther up the mountain, and possibly get them to extend their stay in Tall Pine another day.”
In the quiet room, he thought he heard Mandy exhale behind him. He hoped that meant he was doing well.
“You have a quiet community, and that's a great thing. But I don't think anyone would object to an increase in business. What I'm suggesting is that with carefully controlled growth, you can bring in more tourists without losing that personal touch. A Regal Hotel in Tall Pine would bring more tourist traffic to your shops and restaurants and help you share what your town has to offer.”
Jake stopped. Time to let the ball bounce into their court. He fought the urge to fidget with his tie, holding on to the sides of the podium instead. “Questions?”
Once again, he tried to gauge the response from the six faces in front of him. He'd never seen such uniform neutrality.
You guys should play poker,
he thought.
“Well stated, Mr. Wyndham,” Margery Williams said, and Jake could have kissed her for even moving. “But our concern has always been that once we allow one national chain, we can't very well say no to the others. How do you propose we control this growth?”
“That's up to you,” Jake said. “I wouldn't want to stand in front of you and start dictating town policy. What I'm suggesting is that it's time for you to consider taking a small step. I'm sure that you could work out a policy that would carefully limit growth.” He braced himself before he went on. “May I point out to you, you don't have any such policy now.”
Frazier's scowl deepened; in the middle, Rick Brewster straightened.
Jake squared his shoulders. “Right now,” he continued, “you don't have a code on the books against allowing a national chain in Tall Pine. The locations we're considering, like the old drive-in lot, are zoned for commercial use, and if it was a small, private hotel, I don't believe you'd have any objection.”
Six faces, still expressionless, didn't argue.
Careful.
“A more aggressive business than Regal Hotels might ask for a more tangible legal argument for denying national franchises the right to pursue business here.”
There wasn't a sound, but Jake could feel the tension rise in the room.
“I would
not
pursue any such action myself,” Jake said slowly and clearly, “and speaking on behalf of Regal Hotels, I don't believe they would either. We're not interested in legal battles. Just in providing a profitable service and helping your community grow in the process. But without a policy in place, you might be leaving yourselves open to problems with a more aggressive corporation in the future.”
He didn't know if he'd neutralized the tension or not.
“If your answer is no,” Jake said, “we'll move on. But what we'd rather do is stay here—and work with you to help Tall Pine grow.”
Grow
was a scary word here. Jake amended, “To help your businesses prosper. And to share the charm of the community you've built so successfully.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wyndham,” Brewster said. He eyed the council members on his right, then on his left. “Is the council ready to put this to a vote?”
Suddenly they were shifting forward in their seats, and Jake's heart dropped into his shoes. A “yes” or “no” vote at this moment, with no time to deliberate, would almost certainly end in a “no.” He needed a Plan B, and he'd better think fast.

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